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Speaker describes preserving medieval texts

A lecturer emphasized the ‘controversial’ role of humidification and flattening techniques

The process of conserving medieval books requires knowledge of specific materials, art history and bookbinding, said Abigail Quandt, head of the department of Book and Paper Conservation at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore in a lecture at the John Carter Brown Library Tuesday night.

Her talk, which drew a crowd of about 25 community members, focused on three of Quandt’s major conservation efforts: “The Rochester Bible,” “The Hours of Jeanne d’Evreux” and the “Archimedes Palimpsest.”

Quandt said she wanted to highlight projects that “represent a kind of evolution in technique but also a new way of looking at how we conserve and preserve medieval manuscripts.”

When she began working on the “Rochester Bible” in 1984, it had been damaged by age, she said. “It really could not be safely handled,” she added. She first removed the damaged binding and the thick layers of glue on the spine.

“When you’re taking a book apart, it’s a really ideal opportunity to record features about how the book was made,” she said. “The Rochester Bible” was made from high quality calfskin, she added, and the writing was iron gall ink, a standard medium throughout the middle ages.

“Unfortunately, at some point the manuscript had been attacked by mold and bacteria,” Quandt said, displaying pictures of stained pages. When bacteria eat pages, they stain them with pigment and make them “weaker and spongier,” she added. For areas damaged in this way, she must apply internal adhesive to strengthen the parchment enough to be repaired, she said.

The next step was to clear layers of dirt, soot and debris off the parchment, she said. Then she had to remove the bookbinding glue to make the text more flexible, after which she humidified the pages.

“Humidification and flattening of parchment has now become quite controversial,” she said. Some conservators feel the process is too dangerous, but “it’s tough, because if your parchment is really distorted and you’ve got all kinds of problems in terms of abrasion or handling, you’ve got to do something,” Quandt said.

After the humidification process, she stitches up any tears or holes and dries the pages on a frame and then under pressure.

For mending purposes, she uses transparent membranes like goldbeater’s skin — the outer membrane of ox intestine — and fish skin, which is found in a fish’s swim bladder. Then she adds any necessary reinforcements and re-binds the book, Quandt said.

She followed a similar process with the other two texts, “The Hours of Jeanne d’Evreux” and the “Archimedes Palimpsest.”  She began working on “The Hours of Jeanne d’Evreux” when the Metropolitan Museum of Art decided to digitize the manuscript. The book is only four inches tall, and its parchment is “so supple, it’s almost translucent,” she said.

“The main issue was how to work on something so tiny and thin without it just going crazy,” Quandt said. She referred to the suction device she used to keep the parchment under control as a “godsend.”

The last work, the “Archimedes Palimpsest,” took her 12 years to finish. It was assembled around 1229 AD from seven different discarded Greek texts, but it had been altered dramatically and overlaid by forged material in many places.

Quandt said she was surprised and disappointed to find two types of glue along the spine — traditional hide glue and a more modern synthetic glue that had become water insoluble with age. The modern glue slowed and, in some cases, completely prevented disbinding because the glue was stronger than the parchment itself.

In other sections of the text, the iron gall ink had actually degraded the parchment. “This was an alarming discovery,” Quandt said. “Of course, the scientists said, ‘Aah! You can’t do anything to this book — you’re going to damage it!’ And I said, ‘But I’ve got to take it apart!’” She decided to use a device to spray gelatin mist to stabilize and consolidate the ink.

James Robertson, a visiting John Carter Brown Library fellow and professor at the University of the West Indies, said Quandt’s lecture provided great explanations for the different conservation techniques. “It was wonderful to be able to be shown these things at a microscopic level,” he said.


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